Madison Superintendent Art Rainwater’s Presentation on the Proposed High School Redesign and Small Learning Community Grant



June 11, 2007

35 Minute Video | MP3 Audio

Background Links:

A few general questions about this initiative:

  1. Does it make sense to spend any time on this now, given that the MMSD will have a new Superintendent in 2008?
  2. If the problem is preparation, then should the focus not be on elementary and middle schools?
  3. The committee’s composition (this link includes quite a bit of discussion) does not inspire much confidence with respect to community, teacher and student involvement.

Two page MMSD “feedback worksheet” 259K PDF.

3 thoughts on “Madison Superintendent Art Rainwater’s Presentation on the Proposed High School Redesign and Small Learning Community Grant”

  1. This is the letter we sent to the BOE and Administration after the June 11 meeting:
    Dear BOE,
    Hi, everyone. We are writing to share a few thoughts about Monday night’s Special Meeting on the High School Redesign and SLC grant. We are writing to you and copying the Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent — rather than writing to them and copying you — in order to underscore our belief that you, the School Board, are in charge of this process.
    It seems clear to us that the SLC grant requirements and application process will be driving the District’s high school re-evaluation and redesign. (So much for the “blank slate” we were promised by the Superintendent last fall. With the SLC grant determining many of the important features of the redesign, obviously some redesign possibilities are already off the table — whether or not we are awarded the grant, we might add.)
    Given that cold, hard fact, it seems to us essential — ESSENTIAL — that we understand how our local SLC initiatives have fared before we move forward. That is why Laurie asked on Monday night how the community can access the before-and-after SLC data for Memorial and West.
    Memorial and West are, in effect, our “pilot projects.” It seems to us that we need to be thoroughly familiar with the results of our pilot projects in order to write the strongest follow-up grant proposal possible. It further seems to us that we need to know if the SLC restructuring programs we have implemented in two of our high schools are achieving their objectives (or not) before we expand the approach to our other high schools (and before we commit to continuing the approach, unchanged, at the first two schools). Let’s not forget that our highest priority is to educate and support our students (not to get grant money). In order to do that as well as we possibly can, we need to know what’s working for us and what’s not working for us. (We imagine the Department of Education will also want to know how our pilot programs have fared before deciding whether or not to give us additional funding.)
    The Superintendent said on Monday night that the High School Redesign Committee had “gathered all of the relevant data from each of the four high schools” as part of their early work. And yet, it did not sound like before-and-after SLC restructuring data was part of that effort. We found that very confusing because what data from Memorial and West could possibly be more relevant to the present moment than whether and how their SLC restructuring programs have worked?
    With all that as background, we’d like to ask you, the BOE, to:
    1) compile the before-and-after SLC data for both Memorial and West, as well as all progress and final reports that Memorial and West have been required to submit to their granting agency (presumably the DOE);
    2) make those data and reports widely available to the community;
    3) convene two study sessions — a private one for yourselves and a public one for the community — where the background and empirical results for the Memorial and West SLC initiatives are thoroughly reviewed and discussed.
    Based on our reading of the SLC literature, as well as our direct knowledge of the West grant proposal and daily life at West, we think there are a couple of other things we need to know.
    4) We need to know and understand the extent to which the Memorial and West initiatives are consistent with the recommended “best practices” in the SLC literature. Example: the literature recommends a maximum SLC size of 400 students and that students select into their (ideally, content or theme-based) SLC. In contrast to those recommendations, West students are assigned to their (generic, unthemed) SLC based on the first letter of their last name … and there are 500 or more students in each SLC.
    5) We need to know and understand the extent to which Memorial and West are actually doing what they told the DOE they would do in their grants. In general, there is a lot that is promised in the West grant that has never happened. (We are in the process of compiling a detailed list.) Example: a huge and important piece of any successful SLC initiative is communication with and outreach to parents, with the clear goal of increasing parental involvement with the school. At West, responsive communication from the school is so far from the norm, the PTSO leadership had to talk with the principal about the complaints they were receiving. In addition, there has been very little targeted outreach to parents aimed at enhancing involvement. What little there has been (PTSO meetings and other events held off-site, in West attendance area neighborhoods) have had dismal attendance, with no follow-up from the school. Interestingly, we don’t even have PTSO officers for next year!
    A final word about Monday night’s meeting —
    We found the meeting to be way too structured, to the extent that it prevented open and free-flowing dialogue. Most of what community members were allowed to say had to be in response to things the administration asked, which means the administration controlled the evening’s conversation. There was neither time nor support for audience members to ask what they wanted to ask, or to share their full reactions, concerns and recommendations. Ultimately, it felt like a somewhat shallow gesture of interest in community input, not a genuine desire for real, substantive, collaborative dialogue.
    We hope you will make sure that we all have the opportunity to educate ourselves about the details of the Memorial and West SLC initiatives, as well as a chance to have real conversation about the future of our high schools.
    As always, thank you.
    In partnership,
    Laurie Frost and Jeff Henriques
    West High School Parents
    Additional point about West HS: At the West focus group that was held on June 14, we asked the question “What percentage of West’s 9th and 10th grade students actually take their four academic classes — English, social studies, math and science — in their SLC?” We were told that about 90% or more have at least one class in their SLC. We asked again about the number who take three or four classes in their SLC, because only those students are really getting the full (or near-full) SLC “treatment.” The number of students more fully in the “treatment” condition is important to know when interpreting the outcome data. Unfortunately, no West staff could answer the question.

  2. If I have to listen to one more education researcher or school administrator expounding about the importance of collaborative learning because all the jobs these days are collaborative, workplaces are diverse, people switch careers half-a-dozen times, etc., I am going to scream.
    All this may be true, but it is not the driver for the change in instruction style. The busy bees at WCER and Ed schools around the country have decided that low-SES/minorities learn best in group work with lots of noise and personal interactions. It is an important goal to enable these children to get an education, so given the ed-elite conclusions that the change is imperative, they need to figure out a way to get middle-class parents on board with the new classroom structure. Of course, the argument is, ‘your kids need this too.’
    Well, that’s debatable. People have been working in groups as adults for many years without needing to have our classrooms modeling as ‘engineering firms for tots.’ The traditional classrooms had an adequate amount of group project work to develop these capabilities.
    The big point is that this consideration is NOT what is actually driving the ‘reform’, which means that we parents are being manipulated by the administration (as usual). How can I be sure of this? Well, I think of all the changes in education which would increase the ability of workers to navigate and compete in a diverse work environment. What is #1? Far and away the biggest impact could be made by introducing serious study of foreign languages in early elementary grades. Do we hear anything about this from MMSD? Nary a peep. What would be 2nd? Introducing a systematic intensive study of world geography/history/cultures in the early elementary grades. Do we see any movement in that direction? No. At our elementary school, at least, the 3/4/5 social studies curricula is about Wisconsin, Madison, US states, US history. There is a 4th grade immigration unit, but it is focussed on the US and experiences here. These things are important and everyone needs to know them. I am not criticizing the curriculum, only saying that if you think it is critically important to have a worldly perspective in order to get a leg up in job prospects, we need to make room somehow to introduce that perspective in the earliest grades.
    Many parents and students like the group-project-based classes much more than my family does, and for a variety of reasons, which may include MMSD’s supposed rationale, or not. Just keep in mind that MMSD thinks of us as puppets on strings. Honest communication with parents is way far down their list of priorities, like in the basement.

  3. I enjoyed Celeste’s post so I’m bringing it back to the top of the list. Not all education is about future employment. Some subjects make us better citizens and make our lives more interesting.

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